As heard during Wednesday’s media press conference for Riverhounds SC manager Bob Lilley, with the team preparing for Saturday night’s match at Philadelphia Union II …
On last Sunday’s down-then-up performance at Louisville City FC:
“The first two, three minutes, I said, ‘Oh, we’re playing in their half. We seem like we’re ready.’ They got in behind us a few times and we backed up, the minute they showed they could hurt us. We were fortunate to only be down 1-0 at the water break. We absorbed a lot of pressure. They were running our front guys around, even (wingbacks) Jordan (Dover) and Dani (Rovira). I was trying to relay that from the 15th minute on: Get forward. Get us to take more risk and get the back line higher. Obviously the water break helped. I said to Jordan (Dover), stop standing with (Louisville striker Brian) Ownby and go. Skyler (Thomas), slide to Ownby, Thomas (Vancaeyezeele), we all have to shift over. They had three attackers up the middle. Our three defenders were marking them. Jordan was reluctant to step up because Ownby, but we didn’t have a choice. When it’s on your side, you gotta get high.
“We didn’t do a good job on the execution of our game plan in the first 30 minutes. It worked really well in the end of the first half and the early stages of the second. Then we could sit, manage the game and defend well. Guys were cramping, fitness was going to be difficult. Our guys showed a lot of character to hang in there. I’m really proud of the focus and concentration to manage that second half. To come in and really clean things up in the second half. It wasn’t just, ‘Hey, we’re in the game.’ Guys off the bench did the roles they were supposed to do. It was a big win. Hopefully we can get to our game plan in Philly and execute from the beginning, not dig a hole for ourselves. We had five guys out of that game that would’ve been potential starters. We were shorthanded and the group did well.
“Having said that, we were fortunate. There are things to work on and clean up. We didn’t pass it as well as I would’ve liked. I still think our runs off the ball have to be better. We could’ve defended restarts better. Balls were dropping. But there were a lot of positives in that game, and the biggest was our mentality. Once we gained some footing in the game, we handled ourselves quite well. At the end of the day, we limited their shots. They still only got 11 shots. I said on the bus, ‘Great win. We can play much better. Louisville will be much better if we get a chance to play them in the playoffs.’ This is a one-off game.”
On Robbie Mertz’s development, and other individual grades:
“He struggled a bit in training and going into Louisville, but the way we set up, with him playing a bit higher, I’m pretty happy with how those guys responded. He’s obviously a good player, and he’s starting to bring consistency in the group. Guys trust him. He’s good in possession. Hasn’t quite hit his top form yet, but we have a number of players that, if we can grind through these first few games, you’re going to see this team take a big step forward here.
“We’re going to get some players back. One player who looked in midseason form was Kenardo (Forbes). The other players are still trying to get there. Thomas (Vancaeyezeele) was very good in the back. Good effort from all of them. They showed a lot of character. It’s a tough challenge, but we’re going to learn a lot. The most important question I wanted to see answered (at Louisville) was, ‘Are you ready to compete?’ The first 30 minutes, that wasn’t a resounding yes. They were able to get over some of those early jitters and let Louisville know they were in the game. That was important to see. Hopefully it’s something we can build on.”
On Ryan James being forced into the middle due to some absences:
“He was in the middle more in 2017 (in Rochester). He played in behind the attackers. We just gave (Louisville) way too much space. Ryan was deeper at times. We went forward and he was still sitting on our three center backs. We adjusted that in the second half. I have a lot of confidence in Ryan wherever I put him. He even played center back last year at Saint Louis. (Louisville) wasn’t his finest game, but he’s a good ball-winner and with that energy, he gets up and down.
“We wanted to start Kenny (Forbes) higher and come back for the ball. (Louisville midfielder) Speedy (Williams) would have to make a choice. If he held his shape, then Kenardo would see the ball. If he followed the ball, then that would open things up for Robbie and Ropapa (Mensah). We had to get Robbie and Kenny a little higher, so we needed someone to cover a lot of ground at times in the midfield. Kenny and Ryan did enough, even though it wasn’t effective for the first 30, it would’ve been worse if they weren’t running their legs off. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see (James) more in the middle.
“We weren’t on the same page to start, and that’s on me and the staff. We were able to fix it at the water break and halftime. We were a bit lucky, but on the whole balance of the game, we had some good looks and limited theirs. That was our intention. It’s good to win ugly sometimes. Teams aren’t going to make some of those mistakes, though. There aren’t many who are going to gift us three goals, like they did, in my opinion.”
On Ropapa Mensah’s two-assist debut and what it means for the attacking group:
“He was good for us. There was a lot on his shoulders with Steevan (Dos Santos) out. I’m hopeful he can build on that. I know he was frustrated about missing the target once. If can get in and make plays and set guys up, that’s a good place to start. I thought he was pretty good. Not quite where we want him to be fitness-wise, but he showed a lot of progress (from preseason).
“He’s not an out-and-out goal-scorer. He needs to be better in the final third, but he’s young. He’s good in the final third finding that last pass. The fact he was calm enough on the third goal, when there was an obvious back pass to Kenny, he turned and saw Anthony (Velarde) out of the corner of his eye and clipped the ball to the back post … there’s not many guys who can make that play. If he can do that passing, I don’t know why he can’t relax and slow down when he’s finishing. He’s a guy who’s going to improve a lot.
“Steevan’s a guy who will help with pressure. He occupies players in the midfield, as he did with Neco (Brett) last year. I think they’ll (Mensah and Dos Santos) both be able to look for each other. The guys underneath trust they have two strong targets to play the ball to. Steevan is training this week, in full. Whether he travels remains to be seen. We may need some minutes out of everyone next week, including Steevan, but we also want to protect him.”
On the inclusion of water breaks for USL Championship play this season:
“I think it helped us play better. We had no preseason games. If you saw the amount of players in ice baths on Monday … it’s asking a lot. It’s not a lot of time for a player to get match fit. Some guys like Forbes and Mertz have good fitness in general and they were able to go 90 minutes.
“It’s a three-minute hydration break if it’s super-hot. The breaks in Louisville were a minute, supposedly. I don’t know if I’m sending the team out as fast as some people. The reasons were right for doing it (instituting breaks). Sometimes it’s gonna feel like it’s chopping up the game a little bit. You can still have enough time to really wear a team out (after the first-half break), but it’s easier to get through 15 than 22 minutes.”
On the key points when playing Philadelphia Union II:
“They’re young and they’re free. Louisville was an intelligent team, a passing team. Philly tends to play with two up top with a diamond underneath. Two holding midfielders and the wide guys come up a lot. In effect, they’re almost playing a 2-6-2 when they have the ball. Two center backs, a box in the middle, and wingbacks that are higher and ready to go. They have guys who will dribble through lines. If someone gets dribbled (past), we’d better have someone who can blow it up.
“If we’re solid in the game plan, I think we can get our opportunities. They lack a bit of experience, and also their outside backs press pretty high. You can get numbers between them. We can create chances against them. We had the lead twice there (last year). Both teams were going for broke. We managed the game here at Highmark so much better the next time.
“They’re talented with young kids. They’re going to run at you. If you’re solid, you can find ways to beat an inexperienced team. If you’re loose, it plays into Philly’s hands. If we’re complacent, you could be asking for a lot of problems. They played Loudoun in (March in a regular-season match). I watched the tape and Philly outshot them 14-5. They have some of qualities that caused us problems last year. Some of their athletes and their pace, they can give us problems.”
On how different the challenge this week might be, compared to Louisville:
“There are some guys (on Union II) who can hurt you if your shape’s wrong. They have players who can hurt us and we need to respect that. Louisville was comfortable once they got ahold of the ball. They got their goal and they seemed comfortable. I can guarantee you (Lou City coach John) Hackworth wasn’t happy giving up that goal before half. We didn’t belong on the same field for most of the half, but the game is like that.
“If we’re casual with the ball in the back as Louisville was, and we give up a handout, it could change everything. We need to be diligent as a group. All that good work could be undone pretty quickly. All that positive energy and the smiles could go away. We need to be better than we were against Louisville. It’s not good enough to just gut it out. We need to be better and have a good work ethic and mentality. If we have less than that, Philly’s going to be ready. We won the East last year and they watched us play Louisville last week.
“It’s a very important game. Are you professional enough to handle it the way you need to handle it? We showed we can battle, now we can show a little maturity. Do your jobs. Bring your quality out. Be steady. Be sharp. Be locked in, as opposed to complacent. At the end of the season, you’re going to look back and say about some games, ‘Boy, we let those points slip away.’ We need to be accountable as quickly as possible. We have seven tough games to open the season. We need to show we can continue to win games. You gotta be able to string games together at playoff time. I’m hoping we didn’t play the championship game last weekend.”
Keep it here on Pittsburgh Soccer Now for Jordan Smith’s feature on how COVID-19 affected the Hounds’ first road trip of the season.